HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 16): Ashibetsu to Sapporo

It was always going to be a hard decision as to whether I would cycle all the way home to Sapporo in one go today, or split the distance into two days. In the end, I did it in one day. The reason being that it was raining. Cats and dogs almost all day. Even if I ended up arriving in Sapporo late, at least I knew there was a hot shower and comfy bed waiting for me.

Mercifully, the camp manager had allowed me to pitch my tent inside the amenities block, which kept me out of the light rain during the night. When I got up at 4am, the weather was cloudy, but only a very light misty rain.

Early morning start in Ashibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

By the time I was ready to leave at 5am, it was pouring rain. I considered staying one more night at the campground, since the forecast was for good weather tomorrow. But there was not any suitable covered communal areas in the campground to spend the day. So I just went for it, figuring the rain would either pass, or I would pass through it and out the other side if I got going.

By lunchtime I had cycled for about 5 hours, and my fingers looked like prunes. The rain just did not let up.

Lake Katsuragawa was the first I saw of clearer skies.

Bridge over Lake Katsurazawa (Hokkaido, Japan)

 All the rivers and lakes in the area were pure dirt brown. Today was not the only day they had seen rain recently.

In the end I followed Route 452 for what felt like en eternity through the rain. Generally bleak scenery and close forest made for some generally uninspiring riding. Although the inner little boy in me delighted in charging through the deepest puddles I could find on the side of the road.

Tunnel near Ashibetsu Lake (Route 452, Hokkaido, Japan)

The last 3 hours or so of today’s ride was conducted on pure determination. My legs had no power left in them, and my butt, despite the padded bike shorts and cushy Selle An-Atomica saddle, was getting chaffed and sore. During the last hour of the ride, I was being passed by grannies on their mama-chari.

I got home and promptly had that hot shower. It was bliss.

After the shower, I did a tally of how many bears had been found on the 16-day bear hunt cycle tour in bear-infested Hokkaido. The grand total came to 0. Nada. We did see approximately 3 stuffed bears, 24 bear warning signs, and took part in one bear safety lecture. We could have tried harder, I guess. We could have slept wild wrapped in honey-glazed bacon strips. We could have washed our stinky socks more often (I hear that bears don’t like stinky socks). Perhaps we’ll have better luck next year*.

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Distance: 151.4km | Time on bike: 9h 04m | Average speed: 16.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 1,736yen

* It bears noting that our hiking pals, Leon, Ric, and Matt, did meet a bear up in the wilds of Shiretoko National Park. While from our experience it seems highly unlikely that you’d meet a bear cycle touring in Hokkaido, hiking is a different matter.

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 15): Sounkyo to Ashibetsu

Big day and lots of climbing. That seems to summarise today quite nicely. But in reality, the first 80km or so was mostly downhill, and mostly on a beautiful cycling path following the Ishikari River. Once again I was warned of bears, but saw no sign of them. Except this sign *guffaw*.

Bear warning on the Sounkyo to Asahikawa Cyclepath (near Sounkyo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Part of the Sounkyo to Asahikawa Cyclepath (near Sounkyo, Hokkaido, Japan) Sounkyo to Asahikawa Cyclepath (near Sounkyo, Hokkaido, Japan)

The landscape here is rugged. Mostly unrestrained.

Early morning near Sounkyo (Hokkaido, Japan)

And where it has been tamed by human intervention, the results are not at all unpleasant. It seems that north of Sounkyo, the main agricultural staple is rice.

Quiet roads near Kamikawa (Hokkaido, Japan)

The Ishikari River cycle path quite conveniently injected me into the guts of Asahikawa City – the second biggest city in Hokkaido. I quickly found my way out of the city, and headed towards Biei. Unfortunately, I had to spend close to an hour with bumper-to-bumper car traffic before I could sneak off into the hills again.

Constant traffic on road to Biei (Hokkaido, Japan)

 The hills I am talking about are those that Route 452 cuts its way through. Or at least mostly cuts its way though. Route 452 is about 150km long, but has one section that is not open to traffic. I thought this might mean that a sneaky cyclist might be able to cycle through said closed road. With that in mind, I headed towards the ‘road-closed’ sign on my map.

Once off the main drag, I was again in farming-land. Road-side stalls (with honestly-boxes) abounded, with tomatoes, zucchini (courgettes), and potatoes in season. I dropped in on a couple and bought some massive tomatoes, munching on them as I grinded up the uphills.

Tomatoes at roadside stall/honesty box near Biei (Hokkaido, Japan)

Among the stalls was also this one below. They’re selling rhinoceros beetles. Big, fat, gorgeous beetles, as big as your thumb.

Beetles for sale at roadside stall near Biei (Hokkaido, Japan)

And no, they’re not for eating. They are for playing with and holding and poking and having. The lower sign in the photo below says: The beetles burrow into the dirt. Dig around and look for them.

Beetles for sale at roadside stall near Biei (Hokkaido, Japan)

Views at the tops of the small rises in the road were Hokkaido farmland through-and-through.

Big scenery near Biei (Hokkaido, Japan)

Soon enough I came to the road-block on Route 452 indicated on my map. I was excited to see pavement beyond the gate, so I carried on through. To my dismay, however, the road ended completely and utterly 2km beyond the gate. There was nothing but forest. Not even a foot-track. At least the 8km or so back the way I came was downhill.

Route 452 is closed and road only continues 2km further (west of Biei, Hokkaido, Japan)

This did, however, open up the excuse to do the gravel section of Route 70, which connects Biei and Ashibetsu. The gate, by the way, is for the winter, when the road is closed due to snow.

Beginning of gravel on Route 70 between Bibaushi and Ashibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

The gravel road climbing was fine, except for the horrid horse-flies. Wikipedia tells me that there are lots of different kinds of horse-flies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse-fly), but I think the ones here in Hokkaido (abu – アブ) are similar to ‘clegs’, in the sense that they ‘fly quietly and bite with little warning’. I have been wearing a 150-weight Icebreaker merino longsleeve top during this trip, and the flies can bite through it. This means that the horrible blighters can fly quietly onto my back as I am slowly inching up a pass, and bite me before I even know they are there. Mercifully, they don’t seem to like colder temperatures, so the higher one gets up a pass, the fewer of them there are.

Gravel Route 70 between Bibaushi and Ashibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Bear warning on gravel Route 70 between Bibaushi and Ashibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

The gravel on this route was a little looser than previous days, but the extra float of the wide Big Apple tyres helped to no end.

I finally arrived in Ashibetsu at around 5:30pm. I opted for the upclass Ashibetsu Kenmin Center Autocamp, because I wanted to do some laundry. I was expecting to have to pay 1,350yen, but as a cyclist, they charged me off-season daycamper rates (470yen). The only catch was that it was 8km up a hill. At least I would have a downhill to start the day tomorrow…

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Distance: 159km | Time on bike: 8h 44m | Average speed: 18.2km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 3,746yen | Accommodation: 470yen | Laundry: 700yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 14): Onneyu to Sounkyo

Today I felt like I was in my element. Yesterday, in Kitami, I had bought a motorcyclists’ route map book for Hokkaido, which shows in some detail the various off-road and/or dirt roads routes which criss-cross the island. I’ve always found the unpaved back roads (anywhere I’ve been in the world) to be the most fulfilling (despite the extra struggle). So right off the bat today, I got off the busy, noisy Route 39, and hopped over to the next valley over to the south.

It was a stiff climb for early in the morning (I had left at 5:15am), and it was raining on and off again. I was just hoping the weather would fine up enough eventually to dry out my soggy tent which I had packed up in the rain.

Cycling up the Onne-yu pass (Route 247) in rain (Hokkaido, Japan)

After hurtling down from the top of the Onneyu Pass, I found myself genuinely taken aback at the different world I found myself in. It was literally like I had stepped into an alternate reality. Quiet, sleepy fields of wheat. Grain silos. Mist hanging around the low hills. Just incredible. What a change this was from the bustling chaos of Route 39, just one valley across. It really is worth taking the road less travelled.

Farmland east of Lake Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Wheat fields near Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

The valley I was now traveling north on, was the Oketo Valley. At the head of the valley, there was the Kanoko Dam, which holds back Lake Oketo.

Lake Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

View from the Kanoko Dam (Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

From here I followed Route 1050 to its terminus, right at the end of the lake. Here, the paved road gave way to smooth gravel, and an 11km climb up to Shoboku Pass.

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

About half way up, a car approached and stopped next to me. The driver mentioned that it was a long way to the top of the pass. He obviously figured it would take me all day to get there, so he handed me a bunch of four bananas. In the end, despite carrying a couple of rice balls in addition to extra snacks, I would arrive at the top with only one banana left, having devoured all the snacks I had with me.

The top of the pass was met with glorious sunshine. I promptly found a clear area to spread out all of my wet gear, and spent 40 minutes basking in the sun.

Drying out wet tent etc near the top of Shoboku Pass (勝北峠) west of Lake Okuto (Hokkaido, Japan)

From here it was only a few hundred meters to the top of the pass (972m).

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Shoboku Pass (勝北峠) west of Lake Okuto (Hokkaido, Japan)

The descent was thrilling. I dropped the pressure in my balloon-like Schwalbe Big Apple 2.35 tyres, and laced to a pair of 47mm wide Kris Holm mountain rims, the 29er wheels made the gravel road feel like buttery asphalt. Loverly.

The descent spat me out onto Route 273. I knew that this route would require me to cycle up another big road pass, but I did not know at that point that it was the highest road pass in Hokkaido: the Mikuni Pass (1139m).

At this point, the weather was just magnificent.

Route 273 heading up Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan) Japanese biker girl in leathers looking at mountains (Mikuni Pass, Hokkaido, Japan)

View from Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan)

At the top of the pass was a gaggle of university cycle club members. Replete with compulsory communal cooking pot.

Bicycle of Japanese university student at top of Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan)

They told me that it was all downhill from here, down to a free campsite in Sounkyo, a small village nestled in a tight valley further down. It wasn’t entirely downhill, however, and after a good deal of climbing already today, the small ups and downs on the way to Sounkyo got a little repetitive.

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Distance: 110.6km | Time on bike: 7h 11m | Average speed: 15.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 3,746yen | Accommodation: 0yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 13): Abashiri to Onneyu

What is this? The bear hunt continues? Yes, yes it does.

Haidee had pressing work to do in Sapporo, but I decided that the work I had to do could wait, so I would cycle the 350km or so back to Sapporo on my own. So after sending Haidee off on the 6:30am train, I was on the road solo.

Haidee probably had the right idea though; it rained on and off for the entire day. Accordingly, the photo below was the only one I managed to take all day.

An onion picker near Bihoro (Hokkaido, Japan)

The rather endearing looking contraption is an onion picker. It picks onions. Which are in abundance along the valley between Abashiri and Kitami, and beyond.

The mission for today was to get to the free Onneyu Tsutsuji Campground. I got there just in time for an onsen and to cook dinner, before the skies opened. It rained for most of the night.

Onne-yu Tsutsuji Park Campground (Onne-yu, Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 96.3km | Time on bike: 4h 53m | Average speed: 19.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 2,000yen | Accommodation: 0yen | Onsen: 600yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 12): Kotan to Abashiri

This was our last day on the road together for this bear hunt in the Shiretoko region, home to more bears per square kilometer than anywhere else in Japan. We saw not hide nor tail of one. We saw plenty of warnings of bears. But no actual bears. Not even bear poop. This was our last day to see if we could catch one.

We said our farewells to Okaasan, Leon, Ric and Matt, and got on the road, feeling very grateful for some quality time with friends and the lovely hospitality of okaasan.

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan) Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

And what a sweet road it was. At 6:00 in the morning, it was free of automobile traffic, and the birds were up and singing.

Quiet roads along Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Apart from one last gasping small pass, most of the day was downhill or flat.

A pass between Lake Kusharo and Koshimizu on Route 587 (Hokkaido, Japan)

This meant that we managed a solid 80km on our last day. Even if there were bears to be found, we probably wouldn’t have seen them.

So we rolled into Abashiri in the early afternoon, and thus ended our 12 day Bear Hunt in Shiretoko. Not a sign of bears on the roads or in campgrounds.

We checked into our accommodation for the night, and readied to depart by train back to Sapporo the next morning.

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Distance: 81.6km | Time on bikes: 4h 49m | Average speed: 16.8km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 4,821yen | Accommodation: 6,980yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 11): A rest day in Kotan

The  hiking troupe had planned for today to be a rest day, so we decided it was a great chance to take the day off too. The day began with an open-air hot spring down the road from okaasan’s place, and only about 1m from the lake’s edge. Originally built as a private onsen by the mayor of Teshikaga, it is now open to the public.

Kotan open-air hotspring in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

Later in the morning we all bundled into Leon’s car and visited the well-known (evidenced by hordes of tourists) Suna-yu Onsen. Basically this is a 300m stretch of lake-side beach where anyone with a pair of hands (or preferably a shovel) can dig into the sand and make their own hotspring pit.

Suna-yu (dig-your-own-hotspring) at Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Suna-yu (dig-your-own-hotspring) at Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Leon, being un-intimidated by the chilly weather and chillier lake, jumped into the lake for a swim.

Paddling in Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

The next stop was a nearby sulfur-spewing mountain-side. Complete with un-roped-off steam vents, spewing ultra hot steam out of the ground. What is a man to do with such novelty but to throw his hat onto the hole to see if it will make the hat fly up into the air?

Sulfur mountain near Kawayu (Hokkaido, Japan)

It didn’t work, evaporating my giddy curiosity into pained embarrassment when I almost burned myself retrieving the hat from the scalding hole.

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 10): Chilling in Kotan

Nature walk around the Wakoto Peninsula (Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Nature walk around the Wakoto Peninsula (Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Lake Kusharo is a massive caldera lake. As such, it has a number of natural hot springs bubbling up around its shores.

Open-air hotspring bath (Wakoto Peninsula, Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

The hotspring above is one such example. This is an open-air mixed hot spring. The interesting thing about these baths is that while public nudity anywhere else would be utterly and completely intolerable, it seems not even slightly the case for open-air hotsprings. Just a few minutes after I took this photo, two men arrived and presently stripped naked and hopped in. Not even 2 meters away, were a couple of 13 or 14 year old girls paddling about on the lake shore catching tadpoles. That seemed strange to me.

The strangeness continued as we wandered along the lakefront. A man in a wetsuit was walking towards us with a lumping great big parrot clinging to his hand.

A parrot (on holiday with its owners) on the shores of Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

A parrot (on holiday with its owners) on the shores of Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

To leave him at home would be unthinkable, said the owner and his wife. That’s why they take him on holiday with them. Their kids were splashing about on a canoe a few meters away.

The pleasant surprise for today was that of meeting up with friends from Sapporo who were in the area. Leon, Ric and Matt were on a two-week hiking trip around Hokkaido, doing some of the bigger multiple day treks in the mountains near Shiretoko. Even more surprising was that Ric’s mother-in-law (Ric is English, his wife is Japanese) lives in Kotan. The invitation to stay with them at okaasan’s (literally mother’s) place was quickly accepted. Due to this chance meeting, we ended up hanging around Kotan all day.

In classic Leon style, BBQ was the choice of evening meal.

A chance meeting with Leon, Ric, and Matt in Koton (Hokkaido, Japan)

Distance: 10km | Time on bikes: | Average speed: | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 2,350yen | Accommodation: 0yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 9): Nijibetsu to Lake Kusharo

Today it rained. Like cats and dogs it rained. We waited out much of it inside the Teshikaga Public Library, where we both did some work on some distance study we are doing at the moment.

Waiting out the rain and using free internet at the Teshikaga Public Library (Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan)

When we left the library, it started raining again. Not that that is all together bad. Cycling in the rain is actually quite a lot of fun, in a strangely sadistic way. It is the camping in the rain (with no guarantee of drying the tent out before leaving the next day) that tends to be tough work, and something I generally try to avoid where ever possible. In this case, we managed to avoid camping in the rain by availing ourselves of the services of a “Rider’s House”. Riders’ houses are small, cheap accommodations, at the most charging 1,000yen per person for a night, and are specifically aimed at non-automobile travelers (motorcyclists, bicyclists,  walkers etc). Some are even free. Ours was 1000yen, and included a free drive to the local onsen, and cheap meals. We even got our own room to ourselves (usually you’re sharing a room with multiple others).

Breakfast time at the Rider's House at the south end of Lake Kussharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

They are a great place to meet interesting characters. One guy was traveling around taking photos. He spent about 45 minutes showing us his photos. They were actually very good.

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Distance: 44.2km | Time on bikes: 2h 47m | Average speed: 15.8km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 6,231yen | Accommodation: 2,000yen | Onsen: 400yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 8): Odaito to Nijibetsu

Odaito is well known for its sunrises. This was the best this morning’s one could muster.

Sunrise over the Notsuke Peninsula (Otaido, Japan)

It is worth noting that the sun rises at 4am at this time of the year. Which means that for cycling, we’re on the road by around 5:30am. So that means breakfast at 5am, second breakfast at 9am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5pm, with bedtime at around 7:30pm.

In any case, much of today’s scenery reminded us a lot of the Taranaki region in the North Island of New Zealand. Lots of dairy farms. And, with so much of the year shrouded in winter, this time of year is prime grass-growing time.

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)36

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan) Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

And while we didn’t see any cows on the road, signs warned us to keep an eye out.

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Our campsite for tonight was the very well appointed Nijibetsu Auto Camp. The plan was to camp. But it was raining. So we got a bungalo instead. We felt all very colonial.

Dinner was a little different this time. Vegetarian curry. It was my turn to cook. And to try to look staunch whilst doing so.

Dinner at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan) Good facilities at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan)

We avoided the rain and got a bungalow for the night at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 61km | Time on bikes: 4h 00m | Average speed: 15.2km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 5,676yen | Accommodation: 3,150yen | Laundry: 400yen

HOKKAIDO (Bear Hunt Day 7): A wee blat on Notsuke Peninsula

Another of our ‘rest’ days. This time we got an early ferry to Notsuke Peninsula, and cycled back around to Odaito.

Catching the ferry from Otaido to the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Haidee on the lookout for spotted seals on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan) A mooring on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Catching the ferry from Otaido to the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

We were the only passengers on the ferry, so we had our very own personal guide. The ferry ride takes 30 minutes, but that includes a 5 minute stop half way, to have a gander at spotted seals. They were indeed there today. Spots and all.

Once at the peninsula (or, rather, gigantic sand-spit), with my nice fat 60mm tyres, I had a wee cycle along the beach. Haidee, with her skinny 25mm tyres, walked.

Cycling along the beach on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

The beach only lasted about 500m, after which there was boardwalk. Today’s beautiful blue skies made up somewhat for the rainy and cloudy weather of previous days.

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan) Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Wild flowers are the name of the game here. In particular, Irises seemed to be in full bloom at this time of year.

Irises on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Notsuke Peninsula also happens to be a perfect vantage to gaze upon the long-lost Kuril Islands, or at least the southern-most of the islands, Kunashiri Island (Kunashir in Russian). Basically, the islands, which were originally Japanese, but were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, are presently claimed by Russia. The Japanese government disputes this claim. More on Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuril_Islands_dispute.

Some Japanese want the disputed islands north of Hokkaido returned to Japan (Shiretoko, Japan)

Sentiment in Hokkaido in general and in this area in particular seems quite strong that the islands should be returned to Japan. The text in red in the sign above says “Islands 16km away; so close yet so far”.

The wind was at our backs as we pedaled our way back to our campsite. Dinner was a fairly standard fare of fried onion, garlic, and mushrooms mixed with a tomato pasta sauce to make some nice vegetarian pasta.

Cooking dinner on the MSR Whisperlite Internationalle at the Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan)

Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan) Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan)

The nearby Seaview Hotel has an onsen for 500yen per person, so, like last night, we dropped by later on for a soak.

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Distance: 35.8km | Time on bikes: 2h 34m | Average speed: 13.9km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 3,809yen | Accommodation: 700yen | Onsen (hotspring): 1,000yen | Ferry ride: 3,200yen